Honeybees Use a Chemical Game of ‘Telephone’ to Find their Queen

Honeybee swarms are a classic example of collective group behavior, where worker bees form large swarms by tracking chemical substances released by the queen bee, called pheromones. Individual bees perform a behavior called “scenting”, where they raise their abdomens to expose their pheromone glands and release a chemical called Nasarov. Other bees can then use their antennae to recognize and respond to these odors. However, how these pheromones can travel long distances to gather tens of thousands of bees around a queen was unknown.

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder set up a pizza box-sized arena to study honeybee communication, where they caged the queen in a corner and tracked the worker bees’ movements and pheromone release. Studying the bees’ behaviors and integrating them using machine learning programs, they found that the worker bees arranged themselves spatially to assemble evenly spaced chains extending outward from the queen. Each worker bee relayed the message of the queen’s location by “scenting” and using their wings to fan and spread the Nasarov pheromone in a specific direction away from the queen and toward the rest of the colony. The researchers found that these scenting events were highly correlated with aggregation of the worker bees around the queen.

This activity thus allows honeybees to activate a collective communication network and find their queen, which is a feat no single individual could achieve alone. This activity can be thought of as akin to the game of telephone, where each bee passes on the message to the next. While this work shows how bees can sense and respond to their environment to promote survival, a key limitation of the study is that it was performed in an enclosed 2D space. It will be important for future work to test this communication system in the presence of natural environments that include obstacles such as spread-out worker bees, interfering chemical signals, and wind.

Dr. Orit Peleg is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dieu My T. Nguyen is a graduate student in the Peleg lab.

Managing Correspondent: Lauren Davancaze

Press Articles: “Honey bees rally to their queen via ‘game of telephone’,” ScienceNews

Original Journal Article: “Flow-mediated olfactory communication in honeybee swarms,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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